Friday, September 1, 2017

Nailing (with video)

A reader asked if I had video of someone using the nail chisel and I can dig around for that (I've been meaning to get a YouTube channel up but I still need to digitize a lot of research video). I post the video below at my Instagram page where it received 10,000 hits. I hope this works posting it here in the blog. 

This shows my most recent teacher in Gifu, Japan driving a nail in the bottom of our cormorant fishing boat. Note that he runs the nail through his mouth, something he insisted we do for each nail (900 in all). He claims this gives the nail a better grip in the hole, because the wet nail grabs the sawdust.

Of more interest is the percussive method he uses to drive the nail. I'd say about a quarter to a third of Japanese boatbuilders do this. Most I have talked to don't have a specific name for this technique, but some craftsmen call it uguisu no tani watari, which means  "the bush warbler flits from one side of the valley to the other." This songbird makes multiple nests, and can be heard busily flying about, so the bird's frantic song is being compared to the rapid syncopation of the hammer.

The explanation boatbuilders give for using this technique is that edge-nailing is very risky and its easy to split the plank. So the playing of the nail is a way to control the effort and slowly set the nail. Note here that Nasu san is using a wooden mallet. This greatly reduced the force we could apply to the nail and was a sort of control in itself. I was surprised, frankly, at how little these nails were set relative to my previous experience in Japan. Also, the nails fetch up very quickly. You really are not driving them through the wood to any great degree. Again, it would be easy to split the material so careful setting of the nails is crucial.

I should add when there is a crowd this nailing draws a lot of attention, and I have heard other boatbuilders tell me how nailing would attract spectators to their shops. I feel like another reason boatbuilders did this was simply for the sheer fun of it (with 900 nails to drive, why not make it fun?) but no boatbuilder I've talked to will ever admit to that.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Tools and Techniques

Of the sixty-odd boatbuilders I have met and interviewed in Japan, all spoke confidently of distinct differences between boatbuilding and other woodworking trades. This centered on tools and techniques which, they assured me, were practiced by no other craftspeople in Japan. The two most prominent were fitting planks using a series of saws and edge-nailing planks using flat, hand-forged nails. The former uses a special type of saw that is referred to in Japan as a boatbuilders saw. The latter requires a special set of chisels called tsubanomi, or sword-hilt chisels, to cut the rectangular pilot holes.

A cutaway model I made showing how planks are edge-nailed.

Japanese boats are generally built with no caulking whatsoever. Normally boats are caulked when they get old and start to leak and the caulking is inserted from inside the hull. This is at odds with western caulking, which is used in most boats during construction, and inserted from outside. Caulking in the west is usually cotton, while in Japan its the inner bark of the cypress tree (there may be only one vendor in Japan at this point still making it).

To make seams watertight boatbuilders prop the planks together and run a series of saws back and forth through the joint. With each pass the planks can be tapped together and the fit become progressively tighter, though at the end the saw blade is run along the face of the plank rather than in an up and down sawing motion. The belief is that scratches from the teeth running across the edge will channel water into the boat, so these must be rubbed off. Moving the saw parallel to the plank leaves longitudinal scratches down the edge which don’t channel water. It is from this unorthodox sawing motion the technique derives its name: suriawase, which mean rub-fit or reconcile. In parts of Japan it is also called surinoko and toosunoko.

My Tokyo teacher fitting two planks. Note the overhead props and the mortises pre-cut for the nails.

The two side planks of the cargo boat I built with my teacher in Tokyo are each comprised of three pieces. All the seams were fit with handsaws and then the edges carefully pounded before being edge-nailed together.

My teacher in Aomori sawing the seam between the first plank and the keel plank. The keel is securely fixed with large props, while the side planks are braced top and bottom and to the sides.

One side has been fastened and my teacher and I fit the seam for the other side plank. My teacher is working the seam in the stem rabbet.

The saws used have a long tapering point. The narrow tip is necessary to fit the saw in tight places such as the stem rabbet. These are all rip saws and some of my teachers had saws in three gradations from rough to fine, moving through all three in the process of fitting a plank. Needless to say these saws have become rare, but just recently I met a boatbuilder in Japan who buys home center saws and simply cuts the backs to the curved shape. (I have facilitated the purchase of boatbuilding saws so contact me via my website if you are interested).

A set of old boatbuilder's saws.

A note about props: boatbuilders don’t use clamps, instead relying on creative ways of propping planks in place or clamping them to low horses on the floor from heavy overhead beams. Clamps would get in the way of this sawing technique, though my most recent teacher used metal dogs to clamp our planking and we had to work around those.

The boat I built with Takumi Suzuki in 2014, showing how complicated it can get propping a plank in place (and yes, breaking with tradition we used one clamp). Moving around the work becomes a real challenge.

After seams are fitted boatbuilders pound the edges with a round faced hammer, depressing the center of the edge while leaving the corners untouched. This technique is called kigoroshi, literally killing the wood. The idea is when tightly fastened the planks will squeeze together and crush the unsupported corners and eventually the wood fibers in the center will bounce back forming an even tighter seal. In the old days some boatbuilders used to put raw lacquer in the seams as a kind of bedding compound, but after World War Two they started using waterproof glue. What they are after is a filler. My teachers all insisted to me glue was absolutely no substitute for craftsmanship and they insisted we create a wood-to-wood watertight fit.

My apprentice Takumi Suzuki pounding a plank edge. Note the nail holes have already been cut.

The goal is to make the edge slightly cupped, and not touch the corners with the hammer. This technique is surprisingly hard, physically and technically.

I have also noticed how my teachers placed different emphases on either suriawase or kigoroshi when fitting planks. Some would do very little saw fitting, concentrating much more on a careful pounding of the edges; some would do the opposite.

Japanese boats for the most part are built without frames. Most fastenings are an ingenious system of edge-nails. Nails enter one plank near the edge through a shallow mortise and pin adjacent planks together. The nails have to be curved slightly and boatbuilders have a curved chisel to align the holes.

Sword hilt chisels and one flat steel boat nail. A boatbuilder needs a large selection of these chisels to fit different sizes of nails.

After the mortise is cut for the nail head a rectangular hole is chiseled from the plank edge to meet the bottom of the mortise.

The curved chisel can be used to clean this out.

A pilot hole is chiseled in the adjacent plank and then the two planks are stacked vertically for nailing.

We used a white glue between planks. One needs a long nail set to set the heads in the base of the mortise.

A view of the head of the nail fetched up tight in the base of the mortise.

Plugs are cut for the mortises. Most boatbuilders don't use any glue on the plugs, since the grain runs at right angles to the planking they will swell tight in the plank.

The plugs are then adzed off and the plank planed by hand.

A view of the finished seam. The thicker plank was planed flush.

The hilt on the chisel allows the user to back the chisel out after its been pounded into the wood. I have never seen these chisels for sale in a tool store. Rarely I have seen them in flea markets and antique shops. As mentioned above all my teachers insisted this technique was used by boatbuilders only, but I have seen these tools on display in museums exhibiting temple carpenters’ tools. These craftsmen used square shank nails in roof framing and used this type of chisel to make pilot holes. Coopers use small versions of this tool for the bamboo pegs which hold barrel staves together.

Making both the flat steel nails and the sword-hilt chisels are well within the skills of a blacksmith. These techniques and many more are explained in much more detail in my book Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding, available from my website.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

On Apprenticeship

The typical boatbuilding apprenticeship in Japan lasted six years. I interviewed one boatbuilder who told me he started working with his master at age ten and did not graduate until he was twenty. The system took young people who had absolutely no experience, and often apprentices spent their early years cleaning the shop or performing other basic tasks. Many were unpaid but most received room and board from their masters.

As of this writing I have studied with seven different boatbuilders in Japan since 1996, building eight types of traditional boats. I have built aother eight designs of based on my own research. I am the sole apprentice for six of my seven teachers, all men in their 70s and 80s when I worked with them. “Apprentice” is a misnomer of sorts, because I worked with my teachers for just the construction of a single boat (and in one case, two boats). These time frames ranged from just two weeks to six months. Given the nature of craft training in Japan, however, there was no other word to describe me but deshi, or “apprentice.”

I first went to Japan in 1990 and during that first trip I met Mr. Koichi Fujii, the last builder of tub boats on Sado Island. I was captivated by the boats he built and also shocked to discover that he’d never had an apprentice and that he worked largely from memory and there was no documentation of how these boats were built. I came back in 1992 and 1994 and took an interpreter with me to Sado specifically to interview Fuji. I learned about his life and background but when it came to boatbuilding he would fall silent and just demonstrate different techniques. On my third trip he braided the bamboo hoops that hold these boats together. He worked quickly and silently and there was no way I could understand how it was done. It was at that point I realized the only way to document the craft was to work alongside a master. Luckily right before I left Sado Fujii invited me back to work with him.

Photo by Kazumi Muraki

Two years later I returned and while I knew only rudimentary Japanese it didn’t matter because Fuji, like all but one of my teachers, demanded absolute silence in the workshop. I had to learn entirely by observation. This teaching style is common in Japanese crafts, and very high-pressured. All of the responsibility for learning is placed on the student and there is absolutely no room for excuses.

The author and Fujii san in the tub boat we built.

During those early trips to Japan I was also actively looking for other boatbuilders. A marine photographer introduced me to Mr. Kazuyoshi Fujiwara of Tokyo and Mr. Nobuji Udagawa of Urayasu. Fujiwara was very engaging, inviting me to his home where he brought out tools and began to demonstrate techniques (he had lost his shop in a fire and retired). Udagawa was completely dismissive of me when we met. He was busy building replica boats for the new Urayasu Museum. After coming home I sent translated letters to both men, and followed up with articles I had published on Japanese boatbuilding.

In 2001 I received a letter from the director of the Urayasu Museum saying the new museum had a boat shop and for the opening Mr. Udagawa had agreed to build a boat in front of the public. However, he told the museum director he insisted on teaching me. With just three weeks notice I flew to Japan and built a traditional seaweed boat under his direction. Udagawa could not have been more welcoming, engaging and concerned about my training. I couldn’t reconcile his support with our first meeting, but he told me I had shown perseverance and that had convinced him to take  me on as his apprentice. Years later he told me, laughing, that when we were first introduced his initial thought was, Doko no uma no hone, or "Where is this horse bone from?"

The author and Udagawa san, courtesy KAZI magazine.

A year later I received a large research grant and contacted fifteen boatbuilders and museums from among my contacts, proposing a boatbuilding project which would allow me to document their work. Only a handful replied, among them Mr. Fujiwara from Tokyo, who agreed to build two boats with me. The Michinoku Traditional Wooden Boat Museum in Aomori arranged to have me build a fishing boat with Mr. Seizo Ando. Neither man had built a boat in twenty-two years; both had been pushed out of business by fiberglass boats. Fujiwara told me our first day working together that he decided to do this “because you had a good reason.”

Fujiwara san and the author in Tokyo.
Ando san watching the author.
Ando san and the author working in Aomori.

Looking back on these early experiences from almost twenty years I see how strange it must have been for my teachers to meet a foreigner fascinated in their work, and proposing to record their techniques. On Sado Island, Mr Fujii described me as "the crazy American" but he was eager to teach me. I think the timing was critical: each of my teachers had reached a point in their lives where they realized their knowledge and skills were about to be lost. Fujiwara was a fourth generation boatbuilder and fiercely proud of his family’s skills. All my teachers were of the post-War generation and by the time their own sons came of age (they all had children my age), Japan’s burgeoning economy offered many job opportunities as well as smothering competition from mass-produced boats.

The author and Ryujin Shimojo in Okinawa. This blog started chronicling my apprenticeship with him in 2009/2010.

On an interpersonal level, I know my seriousness made a tremendous difference to them. Frankly, it took me years to fully appreciate this. Professional craftspeople in Japan make an enormous commitment to their work: it is not something they do, rather, it is part and parcel of who they are. As such they have no interest in working with anyone whose level of commitment does not match their own.

Sometimes people contact me asking if I can “set up” an apprenticeship for them in Japan. Instead I tell people the only realistic way to get an apprenticeship is to meet a craftsperson and start to form a relationship with them. Once a sense of trust has been established then a working relationship might be possible. Furthermore I’ve spent decades now meeting and getting to know boatbuilders throughout Japan. It is a peculiarity of Japanese culture, but if I recommend a stranger to one of my contacts in Japan, I am responsible for their behavior. Its this sense of responsibility which explains the reticence of Japanese with regards to strangers. Face-to-face meetings are crucial to the Japanese, particularly the older generation. For over twenty-five years I have been sending letters and emails to curators, boatbuilders, and others I find references to related to boatbuilding and the rate of reply is well under 5%. If I show up they'll happily say, "Oh yes, I got your letter ten years ago!"

As for boatbuilding, there are now very few craftsmen left who have any work. As mentioned above, most of my experiences have come via foundation-sponsored projects where we commissioned the boats so I could work alongside my teachers (the resulting boats were donated to non-profits). In all but two cases, however, I had known my teachers for years before they agreed to work with me. In fact, at the outset of my most recent apprenticeship a few months ago, my teacher pointed out we had known each other almost twenty years! I had regularly visited him over those years and always expressed my interest in studying with him. He always said no, until last year. At the outset of our project a friend showed me an interview with him published in 2006 in which he said, "Someday I have to teach Douglas Brooks." Its a strange journey...

I do not want to dissuade anyone from studying crafts in Japan, but I will say boatbuilding may be one of the more difficult crafts at this point to find a teacher. I now try to include students in my projects as often as possible and I am always seeking venues to teach Japanese boatbuilding. Looking ahead, I believe what Japan needs is a boatbuilding school, and this is something I am working toward.

The author's first apprentice, Taka Higuchi, building tub boats together in Niigata.
Photo by Noriko Nakayasu.

Japanese, young and old, are also struggling with finding ways to learn traditional crafts. There are some very creative groups in Japan engaged in craft work. One good example is a yearly gathering of people dedicated to learning traditional coopering. I blogged about them here. There are also traditional apprenticeships here and there, but one should be prepared to commit to years of study for little or no pay. This cooper and this saw sharpener both have apprentices. There are also more and more school programs based on Western models of craft training.

I am happy to give advice to readers and do what I can to encourage them to study and perhaps build Japanese boats. More about all this subject can be found in my book, Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Kezurou Kai mini 2017

As mentioned in my last blog post, I headed to Brooklyn last week to attend the 2017 KEZ event sponsored by Mokuchi Woodworking. I was invited to do a boatbuilding demo and give a slide talk on my research in Japan. It turned out to be a great event and I was so impressed with the participants' talents and camaraderie. The culmination was a planing contest but while there may have been an undercurrent of competitiveness I didn't feel it. Instead I saw experienced woodworkers advising and helping new woodworkers, and a genuine collaboration of ideas and advice. Yann and his partner Margaret were wonderful hosts.

A national meeting is schedule for this October in Oakland, CA and if you are interested in Japanese tools I encourage you to attend one of these events. Visit the KezuroukaiUS website.

During my talk I spoke quite a lot about apprenticeship in Japan and the nature of this kind of training. Several participants had also apprenticed with Japanese craftsmen and it was great fun comparing notes, though overall we all had very similar experiences with our teachers. As it happens, there is a fascinating article in today's New York Times on a related topic. Well worth a read.

A few participants had set up tables showcasing their work. Here are kumiko, the delicate lattice work found in transoms, made by Jon Billings of Big Sand Woodworking.

Here a Jim Blauvelt carefully checks for twist in the sole of his plane. He corrects any problems using the Japanese scraper plane, a smaller tool with the blade mounted vertically. Jim has won this contest using a plane blade he forged himself.

Jim also had a purpose-made straight edge for checking the flatness of the bottom. Actually the bottom of a finely-tuned Japanese plane should only touch the wood at the nose and just ahead of the blade in order to make the finest shaving. If you too want to hone these skills Jim has a workshop coming up:

Kanna Clinic: tuning session & discussion
Led by Jim Blauvelt
NYC KEZ 2015 winner, Jim has well over 2 decades of experience using Japanese planes. He is owner/operator of Bluefield Joiners specializing in custom Japanese carpentry and shoji making.

And here Andrew Ren of Ottawa makes a test pass. Eventual contestants in Saturday's contest spent most of Friday tuning, psharpening and practicing on some yellow cedar beams.

Friday Joshua Villegas demonstrated how to cut a plane body, or dai. A graduate of the North Bennett Street furniture program, he did a six-month apprenticeship in rural Japan with a furniture-maker and learned how to make plane bodies, or dai. I really enjoyed sharing stories about apprenticeship with him. He hopes to move back to Japan to continue his work.

Brian Holcombe trying his hand with a western plane. In fact he had installed a hand-made Japanese blade in this tool. I have Brian to thank for learning about this group, as he invited me to do a guest blog post a couple of years ago and he introduced me to the New York City Kez folks.

Yann Giguere, our host, led six participants built over a 3-1/2 day period before the event cutting a timber frame, and then erected it Friday afternoon. The quality of the joinery speaks for itself.

Please visit Yann's website and see his portfolio of work.

This is just a fraction of the material left on the floor after a day of practice. The shavings are so thin the yellow cedar timbers didn't seem appreciably smaller!

My friend Dane Owen arrived on Saturday with tools and furniture hardware from his store Shibui in Brooklyn. 

A chest full of planes...

...and two drawers full of ink lines. He also had antique worker's coats and aprons, along with some big timber saws, axes, and adzes. Search around his website for more or contact him directly. Dane has probably the best collection of antique Japanese furnishings in North America.

Andrew Hunter designs and builds furniture in the Hudson Valley and he exhibited his planes and examples of his joinery. Enjoy looking at his work at his website.

photo courtesy of Andrew Ren

I did my demo on Saturday morning, I set two cedar planks up on traditional low sawhorses and showed participants how boatbuilders fit the seam between them by running a series of saws through the joint. I won't belabor the details (which are many) but you can learn more about this by looking at my website and blog

Yann led timber work in the courtyard, splitting a large log as well as sawing with the maebiki. He also let participants try the yariganna, then ancient precursor to the Japanese plane. Here he shows how its done, and then folks try for themselves.

In the planing contest everyone gets four passes, then shavings are measured for thickness with a micrometer (winners are translucent, about half the thickness of a human hair), and they are also judged for being a full-length, full-width shaving. Here Yann is making some judgments on shavings of the same thickness. The winner was Jon Billing, the young man in the brown shirt to the left. He won a $450 plane donated by Hida Tools of Albany, CA.

Yann also had fine tools for sale at the event. He also teaches workshops.

Sunday, July 30, 2017


By the way... I'll be demonstrating boatbuilding techniques next Saturday at this event in Brooklyn:

We had a unique opportunity, thanks to Masashi san, to visit a traditional hand-painted flag factory in Gifu City. These flags, called tairyoubata, are used in celebrations of all kinds. Fishermen traditionally bought them to decorate their boats at launchings and New Years. The bulk of this company's work are hand-painted banners presented to sumo wrestlers by their fans and sponsors.

Twenty staff work here designing, painting, and sewing these flags. The company's president is the sixth generation of his family to run the business, which has been making flags for 140 years.

Bamboo poles keep the fabric stretched tight.

Workers ink the outline of the calligraphy, which has been sketched on the cloth using a water-based ink which will wash away.

Partially completed banners hang to dry. Nagoya is one of the venues for Japan's six major sumo tournaments and with one coming up the company was busy. The owner told me he has plenty of work, saying enough other traditional flag makers had quit leaving plenty of work for the remaining firms.

Workers infilling the calligraphy.

A completed long banner. In wintertime these are sometimes washed in the nearby river.

Amazingly the owner gave me this flag, saying it was a reject (you find the mistake!). I especially like it because the two motifs of the crane and tortoise are the same typically carved on the carpenters' inkline. They are common symbols of longevity. Amazingly, these banners average just $250. I am stunned at such a low price for such amazing work.